VACCINATION. The word stirs hope in some, and strikes fear in others.
How can that be? Both views can be reasonable, based upon the data and your point of view. Depending on what you believe, and what sources of information you believe are telling you the truth. And, perhaps, that has never been so important as now, while we are in a Covid-19 pandemic, suffering in both personal and societal tragedies. And a vaccine has been presented.
So let’s examine some of the issues. For there are little things out there that are trying to kill you. Or just reproduce, like in some terrifying Alien movie, with your death being just a statistical, impersonal consequence.
We are not the only targets of these parasitizing creatures; viruses, bacteria, and other strange things like fungi, prions, protists, and worms. All of which want into your body. We have long known that viruses infect bacteria, but have only recently discovered some of bacteria’s defenses. These can certainly be described as ancient systems of “immunity.”
One is called “CRISPR” [Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats], and another involves “RETRONS” [named for their reverse transcriptase enzymes]. We humans have taken those systems and use them now in the genetic engineering of all kinds of things. One system, called “CRISPEY,” combines the two into some kind of genetic engineering “cocktail.” How we apply that science to our own genome is fraught with promise and peril. And looming ethical, philosophical, and religious questions must be answered. But these techniques will surely be used in developing our own defense systems, triggered by vaccines we create.
Our system of “immunity” is much more sophisticated than that found in bacteria. We have a whole army of specialized warrior cells, with a specific signal corps to identify and do battle with these invading monsters and destroy that which makes it inside and is not part of us.
That is why all of this is so incredible. Our protective system of immunity already exists within us! Ready to be called upon for immunological warfare. It is not some kind of manufactured medicine or a “Silver Bullet” that we inject to kill a disease agent. Our immunological system is set to prevent its initial infection. And when you are sick, and your fever rising, it is often the result of your immunological system fighting such invaders. Yet, sometimes your own reaction to the disease can become fatal. And some of those reactions are now the cause of death in Covid-19 infections.
There are generally two types of immunity in the human body. “Innate,” and “Acquired.” They are both active in protecting you today. Here are some of the troops now traveling out in your bloodstream in ready reconnaissance and prepared for defense. Monocytes, macrophages, neutrophils, basophils, mast cells, eosinophils, T-lymphocytes, B-lymphocytes, erythrocytes, cytokines, and antibodies.
Now for the word that compels this essay. “Vaccination”. Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary describes it (in part):
“1. The action or practice of inoculating with vaccine matter as a preventative of smallpox…1800, R. Dunning (title) Some Observations on Vaccination, and the Inoculated smallpox…
B) Inoculation with a virus….1891, Nature, 3 Sept…to the old dangerous method … Pasteur had added the less dangerous one of preventative inoculation by means of an attenuated virus, to which he had applied the term vaccination.”
The history of vaccination begins with “Variolation,” where patients were deliberately infected with smallpox [Genus Variola] in the hopes of triggering symptoms and later conveying immunity. But how it worked was not understood in the 1700s.
It was Edward Jenner, in 1788, who developed the first smallpox vaccine by introducing the relatively mild viral cowpox [Genus Orthopoxvirus, a member of the family, Poxviridae, of DNA viruses that included smallpox] from exposed milkmaids into patients. Cowpox infrequently transmits to and infects humans. An uncommon illness in some mammals, it was sometimes transmitted to the hands of milkmaids handling cattle.
As a result of the World Health Organization vaccine campaign, naturally occurring smallpox, once a terrible human scourge, has been eradicated from the planet.
The polio vaccines developed by Salk and Sabin used different mechanisms, but have eliminated polio from America and Europe. One, the Salk vaccine, uses a killed copy of the virus. The other, the Sabin vaccine, uses a live, but “attenuated” version. “Attenuated,” here, means a disease organism with reduced virulence, but still capable of enough reproduction to trigger a body’s immune response. Polio has been eradicated in the American continents, and the attenuated Sabin vaccine is no longer in use here.
In general terms, the efficacy of vaccines is clear. They save many lives from disease and death. And they are capable of driving back a disease agent, even eliminating it from some populations and geographic areas. But is this benefit worth the risk of potentially negative impacts to some who are vaccinated? Are there unintended consequences that occur at such low percentages that they are accepted by society as a whole? A risk so low that it is below other commonly accepted risks? And at what level should we become concerned about hidden allergic reactions [themselves an immune response], or even more serious complications?
That is where the science of immunology comes to the front. And it must remain “science,” if it is to be of lasting value. And by that, I mean it must be subject to the scientific method, which includes testing, challenge, and correction, if it is found lacking.
In this age of Covid-19 and society’s need for an immediate vaccine, we should not overlook these possible unintended consequences, even if remote. Especially if it must be done so quickly. We must be alert to all risks and protect any vulnerable population. But, at some point, vaccination for all becomes reasonable.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just approved, on an emergency basis, the first Covid-19 vaccine [Pfizer – BioNTech Covid-19]. Here are some excerpts of the FDA releasing documentation.
“With science guiding our decision-making, the available safety and effectiveness data support the authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine because the vaccine’s known and potential benefits clearly outweigh its known and potential risks.
The most commonly reported side effects, which typically lasted several days, were pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever.
The … Vaccine contains messenger RNA (mRNA), which is genetic material. The vaccine contains a small piece of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s mRNA that instructs cells in the body to make the virus’s distinctive “spike” protein. When a person receives this vaccine, their body produces copies of the spike protein, which does not cause disease, but triggers the immune system to learn to react defensively, producing an immune response against SARS-CoV-2″
We must use our best science, assess the risk, and our society’s need, in deciding how to use vaccines. And there may be personal concerns for health, or religious beliefs [see Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. 2000E et. seq.)], to take into account before moving forward.
But we, as a family, as a community, as a nation, as a world, must do something to move forward. In America, how we do so will be each citizen’s individual decision.